Archive for the Digital Printing Category

Robert Howard (1923–2014): Dot matrix printer & direct imaging press

Posted in Color Printing, Digital Printing, People in Media History, Prepress, Print Media with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2016 by multimediaman
Robert Howard: May 19, 1923–December 19, 2014

Robert Howard:
May 19, 1923–December 19, 2014

Apple recently removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. Owners of the new model are required to use wireless Bluetooth audio or the Lightning port—the only connector on the phone that also charges the battery—for wired headphones. If the headphone jack is a must, owners can purchase the Lighting-to-3.5mm audio adapter separately for $9.

The missing headphone jack has upset some Apple customers. At the iPhone 7 launch, marketing chief Phil Schiller drove home the company’s reasoning, “Maintaining an ancient, single-purpose, analog, big connector doesn’t make sense because that space is at a premium.” As some tech journalists have pointed out, Apple’s decision comes down to one word: progress.

Analog 3.5mm and ¼” audio connectors

Analog 3.5mm and ¼” audio connectors

Actually, the 3.5mm headphone jack is based on technology that is more than one hundred twenty-five years old. It is a miniaturized version of the phone connector originally developed in the late 1870s for operators to manually connect telephone calls by plugging cords into a switchboard.

The 3.5mm format was created in the 1950s for the transistor radio earpiece and was modified in the 1960s for the Sony portable FM radio and again in 1979 for the Sony Walkman. The fact is that the analog headphone jack has been an anachronism since compact disks and other digital technologies like optical audio became available more than thirty years ago.

As with many earlier decisions by Apple—like eliminating floppy disk and CD-DVD drives, replacing parallel ports with USB ports and adopting Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless—the abandonment of the headphone jack, although disruptive, will allow the next generation of technology to develop and flourish.

Centronics interface

The Centronics connectors (25-pin and 36-pin) were dominant in computer peripheral technology for nearly thirty years beginning in 1970

The Centronics connectors (25-pin and 36-pin) were dominant in computer peripheral technology for nearly thirty years beginning in 1970

Interfaces and standards for connecting things together is an important part of electronics and computer history. The adoption of a new format, design or methodology over earlier ones—like USB for SCSI or Thunderbolt for FireWire—is complex and involves a mix of science, engineering, economics and a bit of good luck. In some cases, innovation can fill a void and be embraced rapidly if the cost of adoption is affordable. In other instances, persistent obsolescence can override innovation due to design weaknesses or ease-of-use considerations.

dr-an-wang

Dr. An Wang of Wang Laboratories

Robert Howard—a prolific inventor for seven decades beginning in the 1940s—was among the first engineers to understand that open technology standards were needed to connect computer equipment together. In the late 1960s, along with Dr. An Wang and Prentice Robinson at Wang Laboratories, Howard developed the 36-pin Centronics parallel interface to connect the Centronics Model 101 dot matrix printer to computers.

Although the Wang Labs team could not have predicted it, the Centronics connector took off and became one of the most successful computer connection technologies ever made. One reason for its success was the performance advantages over previous serial interfaces: parallel could carry multiple data streams between devices and could also simultaneously transmit status information.

More fundamentally, however, was the fact that the computer industry in the 1960s was going through a transition. Prior to the Centronics interface, each computer manufacturer used proprietary solutions designed to block customers from buying equipment from competitors. As the computer peripheral business expanded rapidly, however, the lack of standardized connection methods had become a barrier to progress.

As described by Robert Howard in his autobiography Connecting the Dots, the Centronics parallel port was the beginning of a shift in business philosophy among computer companies: “We came to the conclusion that if we developed a very easy, simple interface and gave it free to the world, it might be accepted and used by everyone. Apparently, the practice of creating unique interfaces was so resented by everyone in the computer industry that once IBM accepted our interface, seven other major companies immediately followed suit.” This was not the first or last major technical accomplishment associated with Robert Howard.

Robert Howard’s youth

robert-with-his-father-samuel-horowitz-howard-in-1931

Young Robert with his father Samuel Horowitz (Howard) in 1931

Robert Howard was born Robert Emanuel Horowitz in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York to Samuel and Gertrude (Greenspoon) Horowitz on May 19, 1923. Robert’s father worked the midnight shift at the Main US Post Office in New York City. Although he was born three months premature and was afflicted with dyslexia, Robert grew into a very likeable and stout youngster with athletic talent in several sports.

After the family moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn, Robert spent much of his spare time at the Brooklyn Ice Palace where he learned to skate. He played youth hockey and his skills on the ice were noticed by the hockey coach at Brooklyn Technical High School, an elite all-boys public school. Despite his marginal grades, Robert was recruited to attend Brooklyn Tech as along as that he promised to improve his studies.

While at Brooklyn Tech, Robert excelled at machine shop and woodworking. He built a model airplane out of balsa wood and tissue paper and a refurbished gas engine as a school project. His 1937 delta-wing design was ahead of its time and he received an award for it.

Robert was very close to his maternal grandfather, Isaac Greenspoon, who immigrated to the US from Odessa, Russia in 1910. Isaac started a window-shade business on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that became very successful. Robert worked at his grandfather’s company as a teenager and acquired business skills and decision making that would later prove to be a critical part of his own success.

Although no one, including family members, expected Robert to graduate, he not only received his high school diploma but was awarded an athletic scholarship to attend the college of engineering at Columbia University. By the time of his graduation from Brooklyn Tech, World War II was well underway and the Horowitz’s changed their name to “Howard” to avoid the anti-Semitism that was on the rise during that period.

Before attending Columbia, Robert took a summer job working the night shift for the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn. He was hired to operate the milling and cutting machines used to produce parts for US military searchlights. He kept the job when college classes started so he could cover his living expenses.

In a stroke of good fortune, Robert was hired as an engineer for a new vacuum tube project at Sperry. Although he was still a student and did not have an engineering degree, the new position required the machine-shop skills that he did have. Robert switched to night school and threw himself into the vacuum tube development program. This was his first experience with electronics and, like so many other innovators of his generation, the field soon became a focus of his work and he stick with it until the end of his career.

Howard’s early inventions

Robert Howard’s sons Larry and Richard with a Howard Television set in 1959

Robert Howard’s sons Larry and Richard with a Howard Television set in 1959

After a brief stint in the army, Robert was hired as an engineer at Sylvania Electric Company in Queens, New York. Starting at the age of twenty, he became involved in a seemingly endless series of projects in a wide variety of pursuits that would establish him as a pioneer of post-war electronics innovation. His accomplishments would include the founding of at least twenty-four different companies and the development of dozens of state-of-the-art inventions.

Robert Howard’s inventions are so numerous and varied that it is only possible to review a few of them here:

  • 1947: Rectangular TV tube
    All early television sets had round picture tubes. This meant that the rectangular broadcast image was either clipped the top and bottom or was reduced in size to fit in the 7, 10, 11 or 14-inch standard diameters of the first TV tubes. While working for Sylvania, Robert Howard proposed a rectangular tube design and convinced the company to manufacture one hundred of these 16-inch television CRTs.
  • 1950: Cable television
    After founding Howard Television, Inc. to build and sell his own design for black and white TVs, Robert secured a contract to create the first cable TV system that was designed as part of the newly constructed Windsor Park apartment complex in the Bayside section of Queens, New York. Later known as the master antenna television system (MATS), the project connected 18 buildings with a total 320 apartments via coaxial cable to a single television antenna with a signal booster and splitter that enhanced the reception for seven TV channels from the New York area.
  • 1961: Improvements in vinyl record production
    Right around the time that the recording industry was transitioning from 78s to LPs, Robert was collaborating with a company that made the machines that pressed vinyl records. He helped to improve the quality of the mass-produced records by introducing zinc plates into the process. He also invented a pressurized steam-based system for controlling the temperature of the molten vinyl as it was extruded into the record press. Known as the “The Boomer,” Robert Howard’s invention significantly increased the volume of phonograph record production while maintaining the highest stereo quality.
  • 1968: Casino computer system
    As a division of Wang Laboratories, Robert Howard founded Centronics to build the first computerized system to prevent skimming at casino gaming tables. Robert’s system tracked the relationship between the amount of cash coming in versus the value of chips going out. The computerized register centrally tracked the amount of each transaction, each table number and each dealer at any time during the day.

Contributions to printing

Robert Howard’s work with the casino industry led to plans for a printing device that could produce multiple hard copy records of gaming transactions. The available technologies of that time were either too expensive and large or too small and slow for this purpose. Working with Dr. Wang at Centronics on a new computer printing device, Robert’s curiosity and sense of entrepreneurship put him on a path toward innovations that helped bring the printing industry into the digital age.

Model 101 Centronics Dot Matrix Printer

Model 101 Centronics Dot Matrix Printer

  • 1970: Dot matrix printer
    Electronic impact printers with ink-soaked cloth ribbons like typewriters had been developed by IBM in the 1950s for printing from mainframe computers. These machines used a chain with a complete set of characters passing horizontally across the paper at high speed. As the paper moved vertically line-by-line, type hammers struck from behind and drove the accordion folded, tractor-fed paper against the ribbon and type characters on the chain. The IBM line printers had the speed that Robert needed but they cost about $25,000 and were the size of a large piece of office furniture.

    While at Wang Labs, Robert developed a self-contained impact print-head could be made to produce type characters on paper from a matrix of one hundred dots. His invention used wires or “pins” that could print up to 185 characters per second and hit the ribbon and paper hard enough to print all four copies of a multi-part form. The core technology of his invention was an electromagnetic switch that could make each pin strike the printing surface one thousand times per second, more than enough to satisfy the performance required for the gaming reports, and at a cost that was affordable.

    Following the formation of an independent partnership with the Japan-based Brother Industries, Robert Howard’s dot matrix technology was deployed in the Model 101 Centronics printer. Although there were competing dot matrix devices on the market, Centronics became the most successful mass production printer of the early computer industry. By the mid-1970s, sales grew exponentially and reached tens of thousands of units internationally. It was the popularity of the printer that made the above-mentioned Centronics interface into an industry standard for connecting peripherals to computers that lasted for decades until it was replaced by the Universal Serial Bus (USB) in the 1990s.

  • 1991: Direct imaging press

    Prototype of the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI press that was designed with integrated Presstek direct imaging technology

    Prototype of the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI press that was designed with integrated Presstek direct imaging technology

    Robert Howard made what is certainly his most enduring contribution to the printing industry toward the end of his career. In 1986, he founded Presstek to develop the first ever direct imaging offset printing technology. As he explained in his autobiography, “The problem at that time was that offset color was a slow, costly process. It took at least ten days to two weeks of what was called ‘prepress’ preparation before a color print job could even be put on a printing press, and because of this expense, it was both impractical and costly to print less than 10,000 copies of anything. I wanted to apply our knowledge of computers and imaging to the color printing business.”

    Robert’s breakthrough concept was to image the printing plates on the press itself and eliminate the darkrooms, film and chemistry associated with prepress processes. By 1991, a Presstek laser imaging system was added to a Heidelberg offset printing press and sold as the Heidelberg GTO DI (for direct imaging). At the center of the Presstek system was a set of four-color thermal laser heads that imaged plates on press. Aside from the novelty of the on-press plate imaging, the Presstek technology was waterless and was easily retrofitted onto the existing Heidelberg GTO design because it took the place of the unneeded dampening system.

    Beginning in 1993, Presstek and Heidelberg developed the Quickmaster DI press, a printing system that was designed from scratch with the on-press laser imaging technology. Launched at DRUPA in 1995, the Quickmaster DI became one of the most popular Heidelberg offset presses ever with 5,000 machines sold within the decade. The press included design innovations that made it easier to operate than previous offset systems. With this innovation, Robert Howard invented a technology that was both disruptive to the prepress industry and also enabled former prepress companies to enter the short-run color printing market.

Robert Howard died on December 19, 2014 at the age of 91. Although he is not a well-known figure in the history of printing—perhaps because of the variety of businesses and disciplines where he left his mark—Robert made critical contributions to the industry, especially in the final decades of the twentieth century. His exceptional talents as an engineer and entrepreneur were essential to the transition of offset printing from an exclusively analog process to one that uses a host of integrated digital technologies.

NAPL report: What is happening to the printing industry?

Posted in Digital Printing, Print Media with tags , , , on February 15, 2014 by multimediaman

State of the IndustryLast September, NAPL (National Association for Printing Leadership) published a valuable eleventh edition of a report called “State of the Industry.” The report provides a multi-faceted and insightful look into the condition of the printing industry—the changes, challenges and opportunities faced by printing firms today—based upon a survey of executives and owners from more than 300 companies.

The report is the work of Andrew Paparozzi, NAPL Chief Economist, and Joseph Vincenzino, NAPL Senior Economist. The NAPL economists overlay the survey results upon other general information to develop a depth of understanding about the dynamic forces impacting the industry. A copy of the report is available for NAPL members at no charge and non-members can purchase it on the NAPL web site for $149.95. http://members.napl.org/store_product.asp?prodid=369

A central theme of the survey results and analysis—both quantitative and qualitative—is that print is undergoing a transformation of historic magnitude. The difficulties created by the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that caused business volumes to fall dramatically—and they still remain today some 21% below pre-recession highs—are but one side of the problems created by rapidly evolving print markets.

The report begins with the following: “Business remains a tough grind, with little opportunity for organic growth.” This means that firms competing for “new” business are struggling over a traditional print market pie that is getting smaller; and yet market redistribution is also underway because of the second side of the changing business climate: the fundamental adjustments brought on by digital communications technologies and methods.

As Paparozzi and Vincenzino explain in the Executive Summary, “Getting and staying on the right side of market redistribution is the most significant challenge for everyone in our industry. Market redistribution is structural, not just cyclical. So much of what’s happening in our industry is the result of digitization, the Internet, and profound change in how people communicate, not GDP. Consequently, we have fewer printers but more competition—we’re in a constant battle for market share.”

The NAPL analysis is more than a review and commentary on the condition of the industry (Chapters: “Where We Are” and “Where We Are Headed”); the report also contains an assessment of those firms that are doing well in the current environment. It brings together generalizations (Chapters: “What We Have to Do” and “We May Need to Look Elsewhere”) about the correct way to approach the printing business today (Chapters: “Leaders: A Diverse Group” and “Ideas for Action”). At the same time, the report cautions against any kind of formulaic or “cookie-cutter” solution for every company or situation.

As the Executive Summary concludes: “It isn’t enough to know what’s happening and what’s ahead. We have to act on what we know—a game plan for action—taking steps to make the upheaval redefining our industry an opportunity rather than a threat. This report provides several ‘ideas for action’ to do just that.” These actions are summarized as “Hear the voice of our clients more clearly; execute more efficiently and successfully; communicate company direction to employees more effectively; and cultivate new skills across our organization.”

Macro trends

One interesting point that is made deals with the contraction of the industry. It is well know that the number of printing establishments has been declining for the last two decades; since 1992 there were 16,000 fewer companies in the industry (41,012 down to 25,242) by 2012. However, as the report analyses, not only are companies dying off, but there are also new firms being born each year.

Printing Company Births and Deaths

What kind of companies are these businesses? NAPL answers thus: “These companies are coming in with a clean slate—i.e. without legacy equipment, work habits and mindsets that limit flexibility or the troublesome issue of long-term, loyal employees whose skills don’t match the direction in which the company is embarking. Rather they are hiring the skills they at the start, creating a workforce with talents more relevant to our new industry. That they tend to be smaller companies shouldn’t create a false sense of security: Smaller companies grow—and the good ones grow rapidly.”

Another important point the report makes about the overall situation is that a boost in overall economic activity as reflected in GDP is not going to produce a “recovery” in printing. In any event, the very modest economic growth remains lackluster because of “headwinds” such as government cutbacks and the implications of the Affordable Care Act.

NAPL predicts that US printing industry sales will rise .5%-1.5% in 2013 and as much as 1.0%-3.0% in 2014 following an increase of .6% in 2012. While these figures are very modest, the report shows that these results are not projected to be even across all regions of the country. While some regions, such as South Central, have experienced double-digit growth since 2007, others like the Southeast and North Central have seen an overall decline of -.5%.

Print business priorities

The NAPL survey results reveal what company owners and executives consider the most important areas of focus and how they approach them. The following are the business topics and the top responses to the survey:

  • Hearing the Voice of the Customer
    Meeting more frequently on an owner-to-owner/executive-to-executive basis (64%)
  • Client Education
    We offer client education programs and materials (56.4%)
  • Employee Communications
    One-on-one or small group meetings (77%)
  • Execution issues
    Poor follow through. Start off well, but lose focus (39.8%)
  • Strategic Shifts
    We will no longer carry unproductive employees (48.3%)
  • Critical Skills
    Sales (71.3%)
  • What We’d Most Like to Upgrade
    Web-to-print, web storefront, ecommerce (51%)

Sales Industry Leaders

One of the striking results of the survey is that there is an expanding divergence between industry leaders and the rest of the industry. This comes out most obviously on the sales front. It is clear from the foregoing data that understanding customer needs, business development and sales are a top priorities for printing company owners and executives.

In an environment of intense competition, differentiation is key to winning and retaining clients. In order to survive and grow, those companies that have been most successful have absorbed the meaning of the fundamental changes taking place and are offering a complex array of products and services beyond ink on paper. As summed up in the comment of one survey participant, “Successful printers recognize they are part of the communications industry, not the printing industry.”

Where does offset lithography fit?

An important aspect of the NAPL report deals with the state of traditional offset printing. In fact, the report contains a page following the executive summary called, “What About Lithography?” which makes some highly valuable comments about the relationship between the old and the new of the industry.

Offset lithography is still the single biggest source of revenue in the printing industry. At between $40 and $45 billion, this market breaks down as follows:

  • Advertising print: $10.2 billion
  • Magazine/periodical print: $4.9 billion
  • Catalog/directory print: $3.2 billion
  • Miscellaneous other print: $20 billion

Printing Company Revenue Sources

Eighty-eight percent of NAPL survey respondents reported that they get one quarter of their revenue from offset lithography and 70% report that it accounts for at least half. Printing companies cannot afford to “walk away” from this dominant yet traditional source of revenue. “Put simply, once we won by being the best lithographer. Now we win by being the best at putting lithography and every other service that we offer—it’s print-and, not print-or—to work for our clients.” This is a very good summary of where we are as an industry: one foot in the old and one foot in the new era of communications.

3-D printing: The next desktop revolution

Posted in 3-D Printing, Digital Media, Digital Printing with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2013 by multimediaman

I suspect there are more than a few readers who remember how printing and publishing changed dramatically in the 1980s as desktop computers and print-ready files displaced phototypesetters and camera-ready artwork. Many of us went from the hazards of darkroom chemistry to that of workstation ergonomics; I remember being unceremoniously lifted from the comfort of my paste-up boards, horizontal camera and film processor and dropped into the world of SyQuest disks, Apple system “bombs” and PostScript (infinite-loop) errors.

Steve Jobs Press Conference January 23 1985

Steve Jobs at the press conference where the first desktop publishing system was announced on January 23, 1985.

Actually, the birth of desktop publishing (a term coined by Paul Brainerd of Aldus Corporation) and its disruptive impact can be traced to a specific date. On January 23, 1985, at a press conference following an annual stockholder’s meeting of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs announced the first desktop publishing system. It consisted of the following component technologies:

  • Personal computer (Apple Macintosh)
  • Page layout software (Aldus PageMaker)
  • Laser printer (Canon/Apple LaserWriter)
  • Page description language (Adobe PostScript)

It is safe to say that few understood the meaning of what happened that day. For the first time, text and graphics were placed on a page simultaneously and imaged on paper as reproduction “copy” or as a final printed sheet. The breakthrough of desktop publishing was that it was possible for just about anyone—with a modest investment—to become a publisher. The full impact of desktop publishing would be realized over the next decade as it transformed several industries and was a significant element in the evolution of the World Wide Web.

Chris Anderson MakersWith the benefit of hindsight, Chris Anderson (author of The Long Tail and former editor of Wired magazine) discusses the long-term implications of the desktop phenomenon in his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. “Remember, at that time publishing used to mean manufacturing in every sense of the word, from the railways that brought huge rolls of paper and barrels of ink to the printing plant … Taking publishing out of the factories liberated it. But the real impact of this was not in paper, but in the idea of ‘publishing’ online. Once people were given the power of the press, they wanted to do more than print out newsletters. So, when the web arrived, ‘publishing’ became ‘posting’ and they could reach the world.”

Today Anderson believes that we are living through a similar paradigm shift. But this time it is in the world of physical objects and the making of things. Today’s Maker Movement—the design and manufacture of things by individuals instead of industrial corporations—is with personal computers, CAD software and desktop 3-D printers and other equipment like laser cutters and CNC machines.

Form 1 desktop 3-D printer

Desktop 3-D printers take geometric data from CAD software and fabricate objects out of liquid plastic or resin

Distinct from the desktop printers that produce 2-D black and white or full color images on sheets of paper, a 3-D printer uses electronic geometries and turns them into objects that you can pick up and hold in your hand. Desktop 3-D printers usually extrude molten plastic in layers of liquid or powder resin. They can typically put down plastic material in thin layers (.33 of a millimeter) in processes like fusion deposition modeling (FDM), stereo lithography (SLA) or selective laser sintering (SLS).

3-D printers are an “additive” manufacturing technology; they build up objects from nothing, layer by layer. This is distinct from older industrial techniques—like “subtractive” routers and mills—in which spinning raw material is cut or ground away to reveal the object. Although they are newer and undergoing rapid development, additive 3-D printers have the advantage of producing little or no waste in the production process.

3D Print Sales Chart

Market size by 3-D printing sector application in US$ million

According to a recent report by IDTechEx, large-scale 3-D printing surpassed revenues of $1 billion in 2012 and growth is expected to quadruple by 2025. Industries that are heavy users of 3-D printing technologies are medical and dental, automotive and aerospace. The promise of the 3-D print is that it opens up inexpensive variability and complexity to the mass manufacturing process. For example, 3-D print used in the manufacture of prosthetics and orthopedic implants makes possible mass customization based on patient CT or MRI scan data.

Some believe—including Chris Anderson—that the digital Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and Maker Movement are generating a much bigger market than that of the large-scale commercial applications. The aggregate value of the design and manufacture of entirely custom products in medium to small (or even single) quantities is potentially greater than the manufacture of mass consumer products where each item is identical.

This is a business concept that everyone in the printing industry is very familiar with. We have been dealing with the economics of the digital print for two decades and understand very well that the cost per unit of a digital print product (custom) versus conventional offset printing (mass production). The cost per unit in digital print is “flat,” i.e. it do not rise or fall based upon a decrease or increase in quantity or a change in complexity, whereas the cost of the setup (make-ready) of a traditional offset print project is amortized across the entire print run.

chrischarts.indd

The relationship between the cost per unit and the quantity of mass manufacturing (injection molding) versus digital fabrication (3-D printing).

Anderson explains it this way, “Digital fabrication inverts the economics of traditional manufacturing. In mass production, most of the costs are in up-front tooling, and the more complicated the product is and the more changes you make, the more it costs. But with digital fabrication, it’s the reverse: the things that are expensive in traditional manufacturing become free.”

We can rightfully question Chris Anderson’s assertion that digital desktop fabrication heralds the beginning of new industrial revolution on the magnitude of that which occurred in the nineteenth century. However, there is no doubting his commitment. Anderson recently left his position after more than ten years as editor of Wired magazine to become full-time CEO of the firm he founded called 3D Robotics that manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

As we think about the meaning of 3-D printing technology today, it is important to reflect back upon the desktop revolution of the 1980s. We should recall that many in the publishing industry viewed the nascent desktop system—inspired by Steve Jobs of Apple, Paul Brainerd of Aldus and Chuck Geschke and John Warnock of Adobe—as not measuring up to the professional requirements of the day. Many who initially dismissed desktop publishing as a fad and resisted the transition away from mechanical graphic arts technologies would later live to regret that perception.

The promise of 3-D printing is significant. Perhaps Chris Anderson will not be alone in the migration from the printing and publishing industries to that of digital fabrication, DIY manufacturing and the Maker Movement.